Michael Brajkovich MW is one of the most talented, and modest, winemakers in the world today.
Recently I had the chance to sit down with him and talk about his Kumeu River chardonnays, and couldn’t resist asking how he felt about them trouncing a clutch of eye-wateringly expensive white Burgundies in a blind tasting last year. This is not the first time Michael’s Auckland chardonnays have performed such a feat, and the sort of result that, were I a winemaker, would probably see me running delirious laps around my barrel hall.
‘Whenever we’ve put our wines against some top white Burgundies, we’ve been very happy just to be on the same page,’ Michael replies. ‘We’re happy to be considered at the same kind of level because we’re considerably cheaper; and when the results come through and we’ve done very well… it’s really nice!’
‘But it’s not the main reason we do it,’ he hastens to add. ‘We’re here to say ‘hey – here’s something that’s not exactly the same, because it’s from a different terroir, a different country – but the quality level is comparable, the style is comparable, and we are better value.’’
Kumeu River’s new 2014 wines, have recently been released in our current New Zealand offer, provide a further testament to the outstanding quality and deserved following the Brajkovich family’s wines have achieved.
‘Everything went perfectly in 2014. There was no rot, harvesting was easy, the fruit was in perfect condition and as the juices went through fermentation, we thought to ourselves, ‘this is something pretty special.’ It was pretty much a perfect-weather vintage leading right up to the end of it. It’s a generous, richer, more giving vintage than 2013. And they’re actually really good early on.’
He’s not wrong. The 2014s are truly world-class chardonnays, imbued with approachable richness and delicate refreshing balance throughout the Kumeu River portfolio.
But not quite everything went perfectly, Michael chuckled. Their top plot, Mate’s Vineyard, which is the last to be picked, became the subject of a scramble to get the grapes in before a tropical cyclone threatened to destroy the crop before it could be harvested.
All whilst entertaining the visit of New Zealand’s Prime Minister – and their local MP – John Key, and the Croatian Prime Minister, who was visiting at the time!
Thankfully the grapes were harvested – and the Prime Ministers entertained – and the fruit reached the winery in perfect condition. ‘It was during the fermentation we realised how good it was. Ok, so it was picked a few days earlier than we’d have liked but it didn’t make any difference: the vineyard matters more than the few days. It’s one of our oldest vineyards. It’s quite low-yielding, even in terms of this bumper crop, and the wine is fabulous. It really is our grand cru.’
Enter stage left: The Society’s Head of Buying, Tim Sykes, and buyer for New Zealand, Sarah Knowles MW, who visited Kumeu a couple of months later.
You can read Tim’s account of the visit here; but having tasted the 2014s in barrel, Sarah instantly began negotiating an increase in The Society’s allocation.
Kumeu River are, of course, also the source of our Society’s Exhibition Chardonnay (£13.50). This exclusive single-vineyard wine has long been popular with members, but the 2014 vintage offers something particularly special. Having picked up the Best New Zealand Chardonnay Under £15 Trophy at both the Decanter and International Wine Challenge awards, the wine offers further delicious proof of 2014’s quality here. The below video from our archive shows Michael talking about this wine, and sums up both the wine and his outlook on winemaking very well.
Kumeu River’s 2014s are available now in our current New Zealand offer. Despite securing a good allocation of these wines, supply is still limited so please don’t delay in ordering these special wines to avoid disappointment!
If you could choose to plant a vineyard, build the perfect winery and make wine anywhere in the world, where would you do it?
Terry Peabody of Craggy Range was faced with that exact dilemma and it came about in a most unusual way.
The majority of winemakers and property owners have a history with wine, be it via family businesses passed down through generations or growing up surrounded by the vine, more often than not it’s in their blood, it’s an intangible connection to the soil, grape and barrel. Terry Peabody was born on the island of Guam in Micronesia, not exactly renowned for its viticultural heritage.
It was actually Terry’s wife and daughter who convinced him that while his considerable business interests in the construction and trucking industries across Asia and North America were all well and good (and profitable), it wasn’t something that they felt they could be part of.
Wine however was a different story, and so in 1993 over a long leisurely dinner they set about convincing Terry that the legacy he should build for his family (and what a family – he has 11 grandchildren!) should be in wine. And so began the search for the perfect location to literally put down roots.
As a fan of the wines of Bordeaux it seemed like a good a place as any to start. Land prices of a million euros per hectare and upwards, combined with as Terry puts it, ‘a wine industry that has regulations for regulations’ diminished the attraction somewhat.
Born an American and now with Australian citizenship, it’s not surprising that Terry looked to these countries next. California’s Napa Valley was a candidate for a while as was Western Australia, whose wines were much closer the Bordeaux style Terry admired. But California had much the same issues as Bordeaux and Western Australia would still mean a six-hour trip from his home, so these were rejected too.
As is often the case with these things, just when you are about to give up on a project, fate steps in.
It was one of his other businesses, trucking, that took him to New Zealand and when word got around that Terry was interested in starting a winery, it wasn’t long before he was taken on a tour of the country’s winelands and was introduced to local winemaker and Kiwi Master of Wine Steve Smith.
A meeting of minds ensued; based on the principle that a wine should be a true reflection of the terroir it was born from, and Steve Smith was ahead of the pack in having his nose to the ground for where the best new terroirs might be. And so, the land of the long white cloud was settled upon to be home to Craggy Range.
Today New Zealand sauvignon blanc is established as a modern classic but even back in the mid-nineties, way before its omnipresence on the world’s wine lists, it was already a hot ticket. Craggy Range certainly didn’t have any problems selling all the sauvignon blanc they could make back then, but it was never their sole focus, despite its obvious commercial success. Their aim was to tell the story of New Zealand’s red wines. The natural starting point for this venture was in warmer Hawke’s Bay and in the Gimblett Gravels, specifically. Here Craggy Range started its first vineyard and built a state-of-the-art winery.
160 years ago the Gimblett Gravels region of Hawke’s Bay looked quite different, mainly because it was underwater! Earthquake activity had caused the Ngaruroro river to flood, covering the surrounding plains, when the waters subsided, the river had changed its course leaving behind the gravel.
In fact it was a bit of a head scratcher for those in the region. The soil was poor and unproductive with it apparently taking about three acres of land just to feed one sheep, its only foreseeable future was to be mined by a concrete company who had bought 150ha to dig for gravel.
Hardly the stuff of legends. But with the gravel the waters had left rich mineral deposits, and slowly from the mid-1970s onwards, and after a few legal battles between local farmers and the concrete company, the idea of planting vines, particularly red grape varieties, in the area began to take hold. Steve Smith MW was quick to notice the similarity between the terroir here and those of Bordeaux’s illustrious vineyards.
Perfect for merlot, he rightly deduced. In fact, Hawke’s Bay has become the home of Bordeaux-style blends in New Zealand and the syrah grape does particularly well here too.
As an area under vine, the Gimblet Gravels is still in its infancy. Craggy Range planted their first vines here in 1996 and if wines tried at a recent tasting can exhibit the class sophistication and elegance, balanced with structure and fruit from vines that are only just 20 years then a very bright future lies ahead. To paraphrase a heavily used marketing slogan in the 90s, ‘the future’s bright, the future’s red!’
We have championed the wines of Craggy Range for a long time and were delighted to work with them on our first Exhibition-label Hawke’s Bay Red, especially as it comes from the 2013 vintage – their best yet.
It’s made from majority merlot with cabernet sauvignon and malbec in support, plus a little cabernet franc. Having spent a year and a half in French oak barrels plus a further year in bottle to polish the rich, ripe fruit, it is showing great class. ‘The idea with this wine,’ Terry says, ‘is to make a bottle that you can crack open straight away or cellar for 10 years if you wish.’
Having tried the wine recently, when Terry came into to talk to staff at Stevenage, I think you’d be hard pushed to keep your hands off it for 10 years!
Marketing Campaign Manager
The new Exhibition Hawke’s Bay Red 2013 is available now at the introductory price of £11.95 (instead of £12.95) until Sunday 10th April.
We discussed the seasonal nature of winemaking and the difficulty in finding time to travel the world actually selling the wine that they make. However, they agreed that now is the right time – winter is coming to an end in New Zealand and although there is much to be done – as discussed below in their newsletter – this is the time to travel, giving them time to dash back ready for spring.
It also happens, coincidentally I am assured, to have worked out quite nicely for the guys to catch one or two games of the Rugby World cup too…!
Sarah Knowles MW
While winter may seem like a quiet time of the year there is, in fact, plenty that happens in the vineyard as we prepare for the growing season ahead. During July the vines are pruned and crops, such as tic beans and oats, planted between the vines to add organic matter to the soil. Vine prunings are mulched and mixed into Dog Point’s compost heap which is then mixed again and turned many times (up to six in total) to create a healthy organic compost. We use this compost in the vineyard and around the property throughout the year.
During winter sheep are moved around the property in order to keep grass and weeds down, and to add organic matter to the soil. Towards Spring the sheep are shorn of their woolly coats in the Dog Point woolshed, then drafted and weighed as some of the older lambs are sent away.
2015 has been a winter of records. We’ve experienced an extremely dry winter, yet it’s been a very cold winter with a large number of consecutive ground frosts. This assists in keeping good vine health and pests at bay.
Winter is also a busy time in the winery. In August the Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2015 was bottled and we look forward to releasing this wine into markets from October 2015 onwards.
Around the same time the 2014 Pinot finished a period of 18 months secondary fermentation in French oak barrels and was transferred to tank for blending. The Pinot will be bottled in October and released in February 2016 onwards. This process has kept Murray busy in the winery doing one of the less glamorous jobs in the winery; cleaning barrels!
The irony that New Zealand’s summery staple is ready to taste and select in July – the middle of New Zealand’s winter – is not lost on me: while you may all be enjoying the 2014 sauvignons in the garden, at a picnic, on a terrace or balcony in the sunshine, I will be selecting next year’s gems by a fireplace, in my thermals Down Under.
Either way, enjoy the summer and sauvignon. The early reports on quality of the 2015s look great, although in smaller quantities than we would all like, so drink assured that I am chalking up the best tanks for next summer’s heatwave in anticipation.
I was fortunate to work a number of vintages in New Zealand from 2010 to 2013, mainly at Wither Hills in their pinot noir cellar. The sun-filled days of vintage, the hustle and bustle of a working cellar and the smell of new French oak barrels, fresh ferments and pristine fruit left an unforgettable impression of not only New Zealand but also of their winemaking capabilities.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Marlborough is all about the sauvignon blanc grape. However, chardonnay and aromatic white varieties such as pinot gris and riesling thrive here along with the classic red grape pinot noir.
Situated to the North of New Zealand’s South Island, this remarkable region is bathed with large amounts of summer sunshine and is just a stone’s throw away from the Pacific with its cooling sea breeze. The region came to prominence in the 1970s when a number of producers experimented with growing the sauvignon blanc grape variety. The results, which have been remarkable, have led to many a winemaker aiming to replicate this unique style. Such was their success that the rest, as they say, is history.
Pinot noir was first planted here in the early 1970s. Critics were highly sceptical at first and many doubted whether this variety actually establish a strong regional base. Many producers didn’t begin to start growing or making pinot noir until the mid1990s, but by 2009 the region had around 2,000 hectares of area under vine – about half of the country’s entire pinot noir output.
Marlborough pinot isn’t red Burgundy and nor does it pretend to be. Producers have created their own unique style and each vintage gets better and better. Yes, there are certainly influences from the likes of Volnay and Pommard (indeed, many a New Zealand winemaker will have often worked a vintage or two in Burgundy and inspiration from the region is certainly evident), but they remain distinct.
Pinot from Marlborough is delicate, supple, balanced and, most importantly, a style which remains unique. It could be said that Marlborough pinot noir sits somewhere between that of the bolder and fruitier Central Otago style and that of the elegant, layered and spicy pinot of Martinborough, just a short hop north by plane.
Two Marlborough pinot noir highlights from our current New Zealand offer:
Wither Hills Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 (£10.50)
The 2010 vintage was the first to benefit from Wither Hills’s newly acquired and automated ‘vistalys’ optical berry sorter. This high-speed conveyer-based grape-sorting system selects only optimum grapes, free of any defect and also prevents any vineyard detritus from being included in the fermentation. The blend of individually sourced parcels from the southern Wairau valley vineyards of Ben Morven and Taylor River have produce a plush wine, with deep fruit, silky structure with smooth flavour. It also benefits from integrated acidity and tannin. Excellent depth of flavour and a superb example of a cracking value Marlborough pinot noir, which shows how long this variety can keep and improve. A worthy 2014 Wine Society Wine Champion that has repeated last year’s feat in this year’s competition too.
Fine and perfumed on the nose, with subtle red fruits which, builds slowly as it aerates in the glass. This wine has excellent balance and length of flavour on the palate. French oak has been delicately intertwined to produce a velvety texture with redcurrants and sour plum.
An unusually wet winter in 2010 provided the perfect conditions for rapid spring growth. Warm conditions followed and allowed for a high level of fruit set. This led to a heavy crop allowing the vines to be ruthlessly thinned at the start of 2011 to enhance fruit quality, advance the ripening of the grape leading to increased flavour concentration.
This is a classic and understated style with body but if resisted will stand the test of time.
New Zealand’s diversity, sustainability, rich farming history and tradition provide all the ingredients for exciting food and wine match. Think fresh Easter lamb cooked on a spit over hot coals in the vineyard, fresh venison from the hills overlooking the Wairau valley and seared Asian spiced duck breast with a sweet pinot reduction… all of these certainly hit the spot!
Pour yourself a glass and enjoy!
This is a direct quote from one of my best friends, when he is at any bar or restaurant – it’s his favourite order.It is also a common phrase I hear when indulging in my hobby of blind tasting because Marlborough sauvignon is a blind taster’s best friend: this aromatic and distinctive wine is one that most blind tasters would see as a ‘banker’ because there are a few certain traits:
• Highly aromatic (at drinks parties if the hosts tipple of choice is a Marlborough sauvignon you can usually get a whiff of the heady perfume from the car as you pull up!)
• Consistent and precise aromas and flavours of intense gooseberry, fresh asparagus, cut grass and passionfruit.
• Light body and crisp acidity that makes you crave the next sip.
The consistent quality and recognisable style of Marlborough sauvignon I am sure goes a long way in explaining its popularity.
However, times are changing!
As Marlborough’s wine industry develops and matures, winemakers are noticing subtle differences in the grapes grown across the valley, and are experimenting more with the juice once in the winery.
Cloudy Bay for example produce two sauvignon blanc – one a very refined yet classic example and a second, Te Koko, that they treat very differently in the winery including the use of barrel aging.
As the style of Marlborough sauvignon develops I feel that, as a buyer, it starts to get a little more challenging, but also more rewarding – and I hope that our range accurately represents the best from Marlborough with a good number of classics – led by our Society and Exhibition wines, and supported by members’ favourites such as Three Terraces, Stoneburn and Wither Hills.
However, I hope you might also enjoy a few less typical but nonetheless delicious sauvignons from Marlborough such as Dog Point’s refined house sauvignon and ageworthy Section 94 and te Pa’s fresh flinty coastal wine.
A selection of Marlborough sauvignon blancs from the fresh 2014 vintage is available here, including a mixed case.
Wonderfully, the wines on this trip stood up to the pretty astonishing surroundings.
I had a wonderful tasting with Annika, owner of the small but perfectly formed Mount Koinga vineyard. The Wine Society has been the exclusive customer for the wines from this property managed by Mike and hand crafted by Paul Pujol at Prophet’s Rock.
I went on, with Paul, to visit a number of his vineyards including the one where the Exhibition Central Otago Pinot is sourced from.
Aptly named Rocky Point, as you can see from the photos, it is on a steep aspect overlooking the mirror-like Lake Dunstan and snow-capped mountains beyond. A tough vineyard for vines, encouraging complex flavours to develop in these concentrated grapes.
I was able to try the next vintage of the Exhibition wine which, although just bottled, had plenty of sour cherry and cranberry notes, fine tannins and great length.
A full tasting of the wines from Prophet’s Rock including some back vintages also really demonstrated how well the pinots and rieslings can age, becoming very complex and fine.
On to Victoria on this whistlestop trip.
Society Buyer for New Zealand
I am currently on my first buying trip Down Under with The Wine Society.
Marlborough lived up to its great reputation, with added sheep! I had two full days here, seeing 12 producers spanning long-term Society favourites to new suppliers.All in all I managed to taste the new 2014 sauvignons from Greywacke, Seresin, Villa Maria, Brent Marris‘s Three Terraces, te Pa, Dog Point, Framinghams, Isabel, Lawsons, Wither Hills, Mahi and last, but by no means least, Hunter’s.
Everyone is describing 2014 as the vintage of two halves: those who picked before the rains (harvesting healthy concentrated grapes) and those who didn’t (who got left with dilute swollen fruit). I am delighted to assure you that all of our producers worked hard this vintage to pick early and carefully craft some wonderful 2014s. What’s more, I hope the photos from our travels – a menagerie of farm animals and talented winemakers – dispel any ideas of very large corporate wineries. We really are working with the cream of the crop.
The 2014 sauvignons that I tried had great purity, typical concentration, and fresh acidity. I also had the opportunity to work with a number of winemakers to blend our own unique wines which I hope you will enjoy next year!
I can’t write this blog post without quickly mentioning the unsung heroes of the tastings though: chardonnay and pinot noir. Without a doubt these made up some of the best wines I tried over the two days.
The 2013 and 2014 Marlborough chardonnays were tasting wonderfully, rich in apple and citrus flavours, integrated and balanced oak notes, and plenty of cut lemon acidity. We’ll definitely be stocking a few more in 2015.
The pinots also really shone. Elegant, tightly grained with opulent red berry fruit perfume, the 2013s were showing well.
Roll on Central Otago and then on to Oz!
Society Buyer for New Zealand
Society New Zealand buyer Sarah Knowles and I arrived in Auckland Friday before last, after a 26-hour flight from London. Within a couple of hours of landing we were sampling some of the greatest chardonnays that New Zealand (if not the entire Southern Hemisphere) has to offer, venturing 15 miles north of the city to the Kumeu River suburb, home to the eponymous winery.
Kumeu River is one of the first New Zealand producers with whom The Wine Society worked, and is very much a family affair. The late Maté Brajkovich first planted vines in the area in 1944, and his wife Melba is still at the winery most days, welcoming visitors from around the world and telling the Kumeu story with infectious enthusiasm.
Melba and Maté had four children, and all are closely involved in the business today, in different capacities. Michael is the winemaker, and the first ever Kiwi to be awarded the Master of Wine qualification, back in 1989. He took us on a fascinating tour of the cellar, pipette in hand, treating us to an extensive and very impressive barrel tasting of the 2014 chardonnays.
It was like being in a small Burgundy domaine, sampling wines from different vineyards and from barrels sourced from several different Burgundian coopers. 2014 is one of those rare vintages (in the Kumeu area at least) that produced high-quality grapes in copious quantity. The wines that we tasted had not begun the malolactic fermentation, but the potential was there for all to see, and Michael could barely contain his excitement for the 2014 wines, particularly after the tiny 2013 crop.
Milan Brajkovich, one of Michael’s siblings and the vineyard manager at Kumeu, then took us into a couple of the estate’s most highly regarded vineyards. Maté’s is the original vineyard, and consistently produces the best wines from Kumeu.
Members might be interested to know that The Society’s Exhibition New Zealand Chardonnay comes from a small vineyard attached to Maté’s. We are lucky to have exclusive access to this high quality fruit, and at £13.50 the wine represents a genuine bargain, giving a real flavour for the style its big brother, Maté’s. We also paid a visit to the Hunting Hill vineyard which, like all of the family-owned vineyards, is trellised using the lyre system, which ensures that yields are kept under control and air circulation is maximised, thus reducing the incidence of botrytis (rot) in this relatively humid climate.
The vineyard visit over, Sarah and I tasted newly bottled 2012 wines, which are due to be released next year. The entire range of chardonnays showed the classic minerality and crystalline freshness that Kumeu River has made its hallmarks over the past 20 years. A great visit to kick off our visit to the Antipodes.
Head of Buying
We have noticed for some time that several members are using Twitter and Facebook to swap their thoughts on wines purchased from The Society, so it seemed a nice idea to open this up to others.
For the very first time, therefore, we will be holding an online guided tasting of three wines, all from New Zealand, on Thursday 3rd July from 7.30pm to 8.30pm UK time, hosted by Society buyer Sarah Knowles.
Those who make use of Facebook and/or Twitter, are cordially invited to crack open any or all of these wines (all of which are currently featured in our New Zealand offer) and taste along with Sarah, resident tweeter Ewan Murray and yours truly on Facebook.
This tasting is an opportunity to add your comments about the wines as we all taste together online from the comfort of our own sofas!
To take part, simply…
1) Order the wines
The wines we will be tasting (in order) are as follows:
Should you wish to stock up whilst placing your order (and benefit from free UK delivery), all of the wines are available, along with nine others, in the New Zealand Mixed Dozen Case for £129 (a saving of £8.25). Alternatively you can pick your own selection from the current New Zealand offer.
To ensure delivery before we taste, please order by 12 noon on Tuesday 1st July.
2) Log in, crack open the wines and enjoy!
Simply log in to Twitter and/or Facebook from 7.30pm on the 3rd July and look up twitter.com/thewinesociety or facebook.com/thewinesociety, or search via the hashtag #twsTaste on either service.
During the tasting feel free to add your thoughts and comments, and do let us know if you’re enjoying a particular dish with the wines too – food and wine matching tips are always welcome!
All that remains is to remind anyone interested to make sure the whites are nicely chilled!
We look forward to talking to you on 3rd July.